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Course Hero. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 19 Sep. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings/>.

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Course Hero. (2016, October 13). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings/

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Course Hero. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide." October 13, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings/.

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Course Hero, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Study Guide," October 13, 2016, accessed September 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings/.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Context

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The setting of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings turns a spotlight on the American South during the 1930s when racial segregation severely restricted the everyday lives of African Americans.

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

When slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 with the 13th Amendment, it was expected that the newly freed African Americans would become full participants in American society. To ensure this equality, the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, guaranteed "equal protection of the laws" for all citizens. And, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted African American men the right to vote.

In the period between 1865 and 1876, several African American men in the South were elected to office, including Hiram Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce, both U.S. senators from Mississippi in the 1870s. But, in the aftermath of the hotly contested U.S. presidential election of 1876, this period of Reconstruction ended, and states across the South began enacting laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and prevent them from voting. These laws were known as Black Codes—or more commonly, as Jim Crow laws—which included both laws and unwritten codes that established different rules for African Americans than for whites. The term itself came from the name of a song performed by the white actor Thomas Rice, who wore black face paint in a caricature to poke fun at stereotypical African American traits.

Jim Crow America

Jim Crow laws were designed to ensure the dominance of whites in society, the workplace, and politics. Whites feared losing their purity through intermarriage, leading to laws requiring segregation in all aspects of life and including prohibitions on intermarriage. An economic depression in the 1870s increased fears of losing jobs to African Americans, so businesses and industries made many rules against hiring. To hold on to their political power, whites set up obstacles such as poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent African Americans from voting.

Jim Crow laws varied from state to state. Arkansas had a law against intermarriage between African Americans and whites, laws requiring African American and white train passengers and streetcar passengers to ride in separate sections, and laws requiring separate schools for African American students. A South Carolina law prohibited African American textile workers from working in the same room as whites. In Alabama, it was illegal for African Americans to play cards, dice, dominoes, or checkers with whites.

In addition to the written laws restricting African American's rights, there was a complex social code, commonly referred to as Jim Crow etiquette, which required African Americans to behave with deference to whites in many social situations.

  • Whites never used honorifics such as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. when addressing African Americans; instead, they would use the person's first name. African Americans were required to always use such honorifics when addressing whites.
  • African American men were expected to remove their caps or hats when speaking to whites.
  • Public places such as concert halls and movies had separate sections for African Americans. Some communities had separate parks, and hospitals also had separate wards.
  • Many business establishments had separate entrances for African Americans.

African Americans who didn't observe racial etiquette would be targeted for beating, torture, or lynching (hanging someone without legal grounds) by vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan who acted violently without legal sanction; upwards of 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950.

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